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In Nevada, a Senate candidate embraces far-right ‘constitutional sheriffs’ group

Nevada candidate for U.S. Senate Adam Laxalt stands behind a dais to the left of the center of the frame. On the right, Sheriffs Jesse Watts and Aitor Narvaiza are wearing cowboy hats. On the left, Sheriff Dan Coverley wears a tan uniform.
Bert Johnson
/
Mountain West News Bureau
Adam Laxalt was joined by Sheriffs Jesse Watts and Aitor Narvaiza (right, in cowboy hats) at a recent press conference in Reno, Nev. Both are supporters of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which has ties to the Patriot Movement.

As far-right extremism surges, a Nevada Senate race is giving a platform to a controversial group of sheriffs who buck federal authority.

On a recent Wednesday, Adam Laxalt held a news conference at the headquarters of the Washoe County Republican Party in Reno. His hair was freshly coiffed and his black cowboy boots gleamed under a casual suit.

“We’re all here today as members of law enforcement – and former members of law enforcement – to discuss the problems at our U.S. border and how they’re affecting Nevada today,” he said.

Laxalt, who’s running for U.S. Senate, is a former state attorney general and an outspoken promoter of the “big lie” – former President Donald Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was rigged against him.

On that day, Laxalt shared the mic with three rural sheriffs: From Douglas County, Dan Coverley wore a neatly pressed tan uniform. On Laxalt’s left stood Jesse Watts of Eureka County and Aitor Narvaiza of Elko, both sporting ten-gallon hats and handguns strapped to their jeans.

Both Watts and Narvaiza are supporters of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, an influential far-right group rooted in the West. According to extremism experts, this is the first time its members have publicly endorsed a candidate for Senate, reflecting the growing reach of the organization’s anti-government ideology.

“These courageous sheriffs have stood up,” Laxalt said. “They’re standing up for our people. They’re upholding their oath – to uphold the Constitution and to follow the law.”

When questioned about his affiliation, Watts explained the group’s interpretation of the law it purports to uphold.

“The sheriff is the top law enforcement officer of the county,” he said. “Federal and state can be stopped by the power and authority of the sheriff.”

According to Cloee Cooper, Watts and his fellow “constitutional sheriffs” belong to the far-right Patriot Movement – a broad coalition that includes militias like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters. She says the name of the sheriff’s group is designed to mislead people.

“It sounds like a benign group,” Cooper said. “But in fact, they are upholding a very skewed interpretation of the Constitution that is, unfortunately, rooted in white supremacy.”

Cooper began following the sheriffs’ group four years ago for Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank. She points out that the group’s founder, former sheriff Richard Mack, was a board member with the Oath Keepers – and got their help setting up his own organization.

“They got together with a strategy to try to build a network of sheriffs in line with militias around the country to, basically, help start preparing for a civil war,” she said.

More than a dozen Oath Keepers are facing criminal charges for their role in the Capitol insurrection.

A crowd of militia members wear camouflage and carry AR-15s at a pro-Trump rally in Carson City before the 2020 presidential election.
Bert Johnson
/
Mountain West News Bureau
Members of a Northern Nevada-based militia attended a pro-Trump rally in Carson City, Nev., before the 2020 presidential election. One of their leaders shared a stage with Republican state lawmakers.

The sheriffs’ group borrows heavily from the “county supremacy” movement, which dates back decades. It’s based on the concept of interposition, which says local elected officials have the right to block legislation they deem unconstitutional.

Cooper says that idea began in the Jim Crow South, when sheriffs and other officials said the Constitution empowered them to block federal desegregation laws. Many sheriffs fail to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve to this day: 90% of sheriffs in the U.S. are white men according to research by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, a progressive-leaning think tank.

The Supreme Court dismissed interposition as a legal argument, but that didn’t stop the theory from spreading. In the ‘70s, it was resurrected by the Posse Comitatus – a hate group that combined racist Christian Identity theology with the anti-tax movement.

“Calling the sheriff the highest form of law enforcement in the county was exactly what the founder of Posse Comitatus put forward,” Cooper said. “So the ideology of these groups [is] really inseparable.”

Sam Bushman, the vice president of operations for the sheriff’s group, rejects that comparison.

“Are we influenced by white supremacists? Not even close,” he said.

Constitutional scholars say the Supremacy Clause makes state and local leaders subordinate to the federal government. But Bushman argues they’re getting it backward.

“It was a group of constitutional republics that came together to form a more perfect union,” he said. “They created the general government, right? So how can the creation be greater than the creator?”

That philosophy has taken hold in some Western counties, stoking conflict with state and federal authorities.

For almost a decade, the group has encouraged state and local officials to reject gun laws. In 2019, Narvaiza and Watts refused to enforce background checks for gun buyers. They also rejected a state law that allows judges to temporarily confiscate firearms from someone who poses a threat to themself or others.

More recently, the group came out against mask and vaccine mandates.

Bushman says those positions are gaining them members. They’d been trying to recruit whole counties for years, but those efforts didn’t bear fruit until Nevada’s Lander County joined up last summer. Soon after, commissioners in Elko County – where Narvaiza holds office – passed a resolution making their county government a member of the sheriffs’ group. According to Bushman, county officials in other states want in, too.

“It’s starting to take flight all over the country,” he said.

The group’s other positions include a hard-line stance on immigration – including the use of armed drones on the southern border. And they want states to take control of federal lands.

Fred Lokken teaches political science at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. He says before Laxalt’s event, he hadn’t seen such a high-profile candidate embrace members of the extreme right.

“Never, not in my nearly 40 years of being an observer of politics at the local, state and national level,” he said.

Laxalt’s Senate campaign declined to answer questions about the sheriffs’ group. In an emailed statement, it said sheriffs in general “do not need a senator who ignores them or liberal reporters who smear their name at every turn.”

A spokesperson for Nevada Democratic Victory, which supports incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, condemned his appearance with Watts and Narvaiza. Laxalt, they wrote, “has spent his whole campaign peddling lies catering to the extreme fringes of his party.”

Cooper says the involvement of “constitutional sheriffs” in national campaigns reflects a pattern that began under Trump: Politicians like Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert have been successfully campaigning on explicitly far-right platforms.

After she was elected, Boebert announced she would carry a handgun in Congress. According to police in Washington, D.C., she was able to get a concealed carry permit – but legislative rules forbid members from bringing firearms onto the House floor. Boebert has also repeatedly broadcast her support for militias on social media.

In Idaho, Ammon Bundy – whose family is known for their armed standoffs with federal agents – is running for governor.

State Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer gestures toward the viewer in the center-right of the frame.
Bert Johnson
/
Mountain West News Bureau
State Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer, a Republican from Minden, Nev., appeared alongside the leader of a local militia during a pro-Trump rally in Oct. 2020.

During the last election, Nevada Assemblyman Jim Wheeler and State Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer shared a stage with the leader of a local militia during a pro-Trump rally.

But Lokken says while Laxalt’s connection to the sheriffs’ group might appeal to Trump supporters, it could backfire. Almost three-quarters of the state’s population lives in the greater Las Vegas area, a Democrat stronghold. In 2020, Biden won the state by 33,596 votes.

“I think it’s a liability, not a benefit, and easily could be used in the fall to question his judgment in who he chooses to associate with,” he said.

Back in 2018, another member of the Bundy family took a stab at public office: Ammon’s brother Ryan ran to be governor of Nevada. On Election Day, he got just 1.43% of votes cast.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Corrected: March 2, 2022 at 9:56 AM PST
The spokesperson who condemned Laxalt’s appearance with Watts and Narvaiza is part of the organization Nevada Democratic Victory. In an earlier version of this story, the spokesperson was attributed to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s campaign staff.
Bert is KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. He covers stories that resonate across Nevada and the region, with a focus on environment, political extremism and Indigenous communities.
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